A Mousetrap for Metaphysics

By Namit Arora | Dec 2006 | Comments


Many years ago, after an obsessive, multi-year engagement with history and philosophy, I struggled with the following question: Is it possible to reduce the vast range of humankind's metaphysical responses down to a few distilled outlooks that have shaped (and continue to shape) human culture? An elementary classification has been in vogue at least since Herodotus: the East and the West, but it is clearly untenable in light of the internal diversity of both the East and the West. Is there a better classification, I wondered, that is at once simple, non-geographic, and more comprehensive?

I was well aware of the danger of oversimplification. Even accomplished scholars are prone to finding seemingly profound but ultimately specious patterns in human affairs. Still, in the summer of 2000, amid the stacks of Stanford's Green library, I devised a classification that has withstood my own scrutiny over time (it can surely be fine tuned).  All of our metaphysical knowledge, I concluded then, is arrived at via one of these three distinct outlooks: Orthodox, Suprarational, Rational.

1. Orthodox: These usually involve lots of norms, observances, dogma, and rituals. Humans have embraced such belief systems with a dismaying alacrity, preferring numbing and singular interpretations of reality to examined belief.

a.   Revealed orthodoxies: These arise at specific moments in history, marked by the exclusive words of a god or prophet, and universal in scope. Examples include monotheisms like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and the nearly extinct one of ancient Persia: Zoroastrianism. A secular example here would be communism.

b.  Traditional orthodoxies: Norms, dogma, and rituals accumulate here organically from sources such as social organization, fear/reverence of nature, and traditional myths. There is usually no single person, deity, or central text at its core. Examples include Brahmanism in south Asia (i.e., the oldest part of Hinduism with its three pillars: caste, rituals, priests), the Shinto in Japan, and the beliefs and practices of many ancient, pre-historic peoples.

2. Suprarational: Inner directed mystical-spiritual traditions, such as those that have long flourished in Islam (Sufism) and in Hinduism (Bhakti). To its common adherents, "the physical world ... so real and absolute and unique [to everyone else], seems ... one way of living among many others; in short, a small, chaotic, agitated, and rather painful frontier on the margin of immense continents which lie behind unexplored."

A suprarational outlook does not engender ideas like personal ambition, competition, science, or democracy. Instead, it furthers tolerance and pacifism, often alongside a gentle, dreamy, fatalistic detachment from the world, admixed with a devotional piety and pervasive superstition.

3. Rational: Predominantly centered on human life in this world and reliant on the powers of reasoning, initiative, and understanding.

a.   Self-asserting individualism: This tends to heighten both the good and the evil in people, as evidenced in Classical Greece and the modern West. On one hand, it makes possible things like science, human rights, democracy, and scholarship; on the other hand, driven by inflated egos and competitive self-advancement, it furthers a brash and aggressive herd mentality. People then imitate each other "in freedom", and reason merely serves self-centered thought and action.

b.   Self-denying individualism: Here the emphasis is on mental tranquility through self-awareness and reining in selfish desire. It forgoes many benefits of 3(a) while reducing its ills. Never with a mass following, this has retained its appeal as a personal philosophy to many. Examples include the Stoics of Hellenistic Greece and Rome, and the teachings of the Buddha, which, in derivative forms, survive in parts of Asia.

Note that in approaching metaphysical questions, few in the world can adopt just one outlook; people and cultures generally exhibit an ever-changing, seemingly contradictory mix of all three.


Note: I first presented this classification in my essay On Early Islam, which also contains the larger context for it.


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